Sunday, January 18, 2009

On Bush's Last Day

Never Again

It is a fact of human nature that people can’t stand prosperity. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism that enabled homo sapiens to last all these many millions of years. When times are good, we go out of our way to create adversity. Maybe it keeps the human race from getting too soft and decrepit, so that when natural disasters strike, we have the resiliency to keep going.

If so, it might also be one of those evolutionary traits that has outlived its usefulness.

People who are securely rich tend to do risky things, whether it be climbing treacherous mountains, sailing the seas in undersized craft or indulging in large amounts of horse tranquilzer. Entire nations are the same way. The declines of ancient Greece and Rome have been well documented, but you don’t need to go back that far in history. For example, just eight years ago, the United States was an immensely prosperous country and its government boasted a $127 billion surplus. Then Americans went voted for George W. Bush because he was the kind of guy they would most likely want to have a beer with.

Fat and relatively happy, voters made decisions in 2000 based on trivia, personality quirks and other irrational factors. Bush appealed to their narrow self interest. The better off people are, the more selfish they become. It’s only when times are tough do people see the value of supporting the common good. At least that’s the way it plays in the U.S. Europeans tend to have a more enlightened, longer perspective, but then their cultures and societies have been around a lot longer; they are more mature.

I wonder if under Barack Obama, America can start growing up. The odds aren’t good, given our collective civic illiteracy. Obama and his team may work miracles and get our economy moving again, and then in four or eight years turn the reins of government over to another right-wing moron with a simplistic, too-good-to-be-true message.

Can we all work to make sure that won’t happen? Can we say, “Never again?” Here’s some things that must be done:

  1. Investigate and prosecute criminal wrongdoing in the Bush Administration. You know the litany: the deception that led to the Iraq war, the torture, the invasion of privacy, the firing of the federal prosecutors for political reasons, etc., etc., etc. One that I found particularly galling and underreported is the case of Richard Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare. Foster’s supervisor, Thomas Scully, a Bush appointee, threatened to fire Foster if he gave Congress accurate projections on the cost of the Medicare drug plan, which were 50 percent higher than the Bushies were stating—or about $200 billion more. Given that it apparently required bribery to pass this bill, those numbers surely would have scuttled it and saved us from a huge giveaway to private drug and insurance companies. Scully never got charged and today works as a lobbyist for the health care industry. The petty crooks riddling the federal agencies need to be outed and stand trial--and that goes all the way to the top, to Dick Cheney, as well. The investigations should be thorough and the prosecutions should be harsh, to deter future officeholders from the temptation to skirt the Constitution or willfully break the law.
  2. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Until 1985, broadcasters of political opinions were required to offer air time to those with opposing points of view. It was repealed by a Federal Communications Commission largely appointed by Ronald Reagan. The death of the Fairness Doctrine corresponds to the rise of right wing talk radio. On the vast majority of these radio shows, there is no debate, merely propaganda. This explains why an astonishing 27 percent of the American people still believe Bush did a good job as president.
  3. Start teaching civics in school. Yeah, students need to become proficient in math and functionally literate, but there needs to be a high standard of civic literacy. Surveys show that large pluralities of voters—and often majorities--do not know how their various levels of government function. They also have erroneous ideas about where their tax dollars are spent. For example, far too many people think our state budget can be balanced by cutting “frivolous” spending, when in fact, over 90 percent of the discretionary budget goes to education, health services and prisons.

I’m sure there are other ways to reduce the risk of America taking another big gamble on an incompetent president. Let me know yours.

When I was growing up, the kind of ideologues that currently constitute the Republican party were considered way out on the fringe. They should be shoved back to the fringe of American politics. The conventional wisdom is that American is a “center-right” nation. It does elect its share of right wing politicians, but mainly because they have more money (until 2008) and thus can control the media. We’re really a center-left democracy. That’s proven by polls that show Americans favor liberal solutions to almost all problems, from health care to education to the environment. The serious debate in this country should not be between conservatives and liberals, but between the moderates as exemplified by the Clintons and probably also by Obama, and the progressives such as Russ Feingold, Peter DeFazio and maybe Ralph Nader. That, however, is the subject for another post.

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